Fairs are not fair for tigers and dangerous wildlife
A dramatic video taken by a student on a field trip to the Pensacola Interstate Fair in Florida shows a trainer being attacked by a tiger during a performance, with children and adults watching in horror just a few feet away behind a fence. The tiger appears to knock the trainer down, begins to chew on her leg, and drags her across the cage. Another trainer enters the cage and frantically beats the tiger away with a rod.
It’s a much different image than the typical memories of cotton candy, carnival rides, and funnel cake conjured up by a trip to the county or state fair. Unfortunately, it’s part of a reckless and controversial trend emerging, with many fairs hosting exotic animal exhibits with dangerous wildlife on display for the public.
Tigers, bears, monkeys, and other exotic species are easily stressed by unfamiliar surroundings, loud noises, and crowds of people. They are often subjected to lengthy periods of transport and confinement in cramped cages and poorly ventilated trailers, which only exacerbates the problem. If brought into contact with the public, they are typically trained and controlled with physical abuse. When a wild animal rebels against a trainer’s physical dominance, the animal often pays a hefty price after the incident in order to remind them “who’s the boss.”
Many, if not most, wild animal exhibitors who frequent state and county fairs have histories of poor animal care, as well as violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act such as failure to provide animals with veterinary care, proper food or shelter, and poor animal handling practices that endanger the public and the animals. Conditions are no better during the off-season when animals may be warehoused for months in undersized transport cages.
Such displays are also detrimental to conservation efforts. Studies confirm that seeing humans interact with endangered animals leads people to falsely believe that these animals are not threatened or endangered in the wild. In addition, when people watch trainers handle and physically interact with wild animals they often want to do so themselves an impulse increasingly catered to by shady exhibitors who profit by charging members of the public to handle and pose with tiger, lion, and bear cubs as well as primates. It’s a practice that is cruel for the animals, can end badly for the people involved, and is all too often featured at fairs. Consider the following dangerous incidents with exhibitions that allowed the public to handle these animals:
- A 5-year-old boy suffered facial cuts that required plastic surgery after being attacked by a 4-month-old tiger cub at a photo booth at the state fair in North Dakota.
- A 13-year-old girl was rushed to the emergency room after being bitten on the hand by a tiger during a photo session at the Marshfield Fair in Massachusetts. The exhibitor fled the state before authorities could quarantine the tiger. Animal control officials reported several other bites associated with the fair’s tiger exhibit.
- A monkey performing at the Mississippi Valley Fair in Iowa went berserk and jumped on a woman, hitting her head and biting her as she posed for a photograph. The woman filed a lawsuit against the fair and the animal exhibitor.
- A man was bitten while having his photo taken with a 2-month-old lion cub at the Lake County Fair in Illinois.
- A tiger cub bit a man on the arm during a photo op at the New Mexico State Fair, resulting in a lawsuit.
How many incidents are needed before we stop allowing commercial profiteers and careless carnies to put entire communities at risk?
The Humane Society of the United States and other groups petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture to issue revised regulations that prohibit public contact and close encounters with big cats, bears, and primates, regardless of the age of the animals. Multiple HSUS undercover investigations of public handling operations using tiger cubs revealed the cubs were denied veterinary care, fed a nutritionally deficient diet, deprived of proper rest, subjected to physical abuse, and in some cases suffered premature death.
Earlier this year, the USDA took an important step toward cracking down on the abuse of big cat cubs by traveling zoos and roadside menageries. The agency issued guidance making clear that exhibitors violate the Animal Welfare Act by allowing members of the public to handle or feed infant exotic cats like tigers, lions, cheetahs, jaguars, or leopards. While there is still much more work to be done to fully address the concern, this is a significant step forward.
We are calling on USDA to completely prohibit public contact with big cats, bears, and primates of any age. It’s time for the current administration, or the next one, to take action. In the meantime, please contact your county or state fairs if you see exotic animal exhibits featured as entertainment, and urge them to establish a policy against allowing dangerous wild animal displays at future fairs—and not to play Russian roulette with animal welfare and public safety.